As NATO continues to strike Gaddafi’s forces in Libya, behind the scenes lurks China with an altogether different show of strength. Pay attention to the microphone flags of news agencies attending this press briefing on Saturday.
Clearly visible on the furthest right is CCTV or China Central Television, the government-owned national television network. Immediately left is Reuters, followed by Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV’s distinctive orange swirl. The leftmost is TeleSUR, a Latin American network, while second from left is unknown.
The fact that two Chinese-language broadcasters are on the ground in war torn Libya should not be surprising. In a landmark speech three years ago, China’s president Hu Jintao stressed the need to “strengthen the building of mainstream media and the building of new media, creating a new pattern of public opinion guidance.” China’s government may despise the likes of CNN and BBC but it recognises the useful soft power role they play for their respective nations.
State news agencies have carried out Hu’s directives with aplomb, backed by $6.5 billion in state funding. In July 2009, CCTV launched a 24-hour Arabic TV channel aimed at the Middle East and North Africa, regions where Western media coverage has not always been well received. More recently, CCTV inked a major deal in January to supply its content to more than 700 broadcasters across the US, Europe, Asia and Africa. Not to be outdone, China’s official newswire Xinhua began advertising this month at one of the world’s most iconic locations, New York’s Times Square.
It’s difficult to gauge whether the Chinese media’s dramatic expansion overseas has had a tangible positive effect on foreign views of China. The likelihood remains that most Westerners have never heard of CCTV and Xinhua, or if they have, dismiss them out of hand as propaganda outlets. It’s also fair to say the Chinese media has its work cut out in trying to portray a more enlightened, positive China. The global charm offensive has been knocked by food quality scandals, accusations of state-sponsored hacking, belligerence in the South China Sea, growing military might, and more recently a clampdown on free speech and activism on a level not seen for years. Small wonder then that the number of people expressing a negative view of China’s economic rise has increased around the world.
Reuters appears to be the sole representative of Western news broadcasters at the Libyan press briefing. Even saying that may be a stretch since Julie Noce, who produced the clip above, appears to be a freelancer. Other networks, including the BBC, are downsizing their staff and number of foreign bureaus in the face of budget cuts and an unsteady global economy. As Western media beats a retreat, Chinese media looks poised to steal in with global ambitions.